I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in the HBO miniseries John Adams, based on the book by David McCollough. Part 6 of 7 airs tonight, and then the finale is next week. This miniseries hits several of my happy places, my interest in history, my love of a good story, and most importantly, great writing.
Paul Giamatti totally reinvents himself in the title role. He’s specialized over the years in roles that seem to emphasize the more negative human traits. Petty, shallow, insecure characters in great movies like American Splendor and Sideways. It is shocking, really, to watch him become the ferocious orator John Adams, in even the first episode, as he defends the British soldiers on trial for what we know as the Boston Massacre. As the series plays out, and we begin to see the darker shades of our 2nd president, he brings his usual sharp eye to human character traits. It’s a simply breathtaking performance.
Laura Linney has slowly become one of my favorite actors over the years, and she totally outdoes herself as Abigail Adams. Linney’s a strange one, because she’s not one of those actresses that physically transforms herself for roles. She’s not like a Meryl Streep, a chameleon who shapeshifts. However, as I’ve watched her tender, nuanced, dynamic Abigail unfold, I’m simply stunned that it’s the same woman who played the insecure, emotionally retarded female lead in last year’s amazing The Savages.
Speaking of shape shifting, after getting robbed of Best Supporting Actor for the single best acting performance of the year in Michael Clayton, Tom Wilkinson outdoes himself, completely disappearing into the role of Benjamin Franklin. The rest of the cast is outstanding as well, including a noble and subdued turn by David Morse as George Washington.
I’m going into mildly spoileriffic territory here, so if you’re interested in seeing it without my little commentary in your brain, stop now. For the rest of you, I just wanted to confess that this miniseries has me reconsidering my views and stances on the birth of our nation.
See, I grew up as part of the Red, White, and Blue, God Bless America, We’re a Christian Nation sorta tradition so prevalent in Evangelicalism. I’ve reacted negatively towards it in recent years. I think that mentality has done us more harm than good, and I’d gleefully tweak Christians with a little reminder about our “Christian Nation” that allowed the enslavement of an entire race of people for about 200 years. I can say for certain that I’ve never slipped into an “Anti-American” mentality. I’ve tried to fall somewhere in the middle, keeping me head on straight and giving credit where credit is due.
However, watching this miniseries, I have been convicted about a few things. First of all, I think that while slavery will always be the original sin of America, it’s important to remember that these men of great principle, many of whom found slavery detestable, knew a simple fact: had they tried to deal with slavery in 1775, the nation simply would have never been born. The South wouldn’t have gone along, and the revolution would have been quelled.
I think it’s important for the “America is bad” crowd to own up to this reality. I know it’s going to temper my discussion of our nation in the years to come.
The other thing about John Adams that has so transfixed me is that in a pre-internet, pre-airline, pre-car world, time seemed to move slower. It took days to travel to Philadelphia from Boston. It took months for a piece of news to travel from the colonies to the king and vice versa. There are several sequences in the first two episodes where the delegates are trying to make decisions about the future even as they’re waiting for their last request to the king to be answered.
All this to say… I think the slowness of the pace of their lives made it so that when they said something, or did something, they tended to make it matter. Their words seem chosen more carefully. Their decisions seem to have more weight, and greater consequences. Things seem more important.
Now, I realize this is a mini-series, and that everyone’s pretending, and I’m sure that there are inaccuracies, and so on and so forth. However, watching this story makes me want to make my words count more. I sit here, typing, and in a moment, these words will be accessible to anyone all over the world who cares to read them, instantaneously.
The men of colonial America had one shot. They had to make it count. They had to get it right. There’s a scene where Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin are editing the Declaration of Independence, and it’s just astonishing to think that there was a time before those iconic words existed, and as they change things around, it’s humbling to think that words can be so important. We take that for granted.
To quote another great American character, (albeit fictitious) Melvin Udall, this miniseries makes me want to be a better man.